In the immediate aftermath of a gruelling but ultimately thrilling victory over Sri Lanka on Monday, Eoin Morgan was – as he had for so long earlier that evening – restraining himself, refusing to let circumstance and emotion carry him away. The match may have ended for England in a joyful clatter of wickets and the increasingly familiar taste of success, but Morgan’s mind was stuck on the period between him arriving at the crease with his team’s innings still young and hitting his first boundary, eight overs that rank among the most awkward of his career.
“Jos [Buttler] and I talked about it being as hard as we’d faced just to get the ball away, never mind looking for boundaries,” he said. “A normal risk-taking shot would have been sweeps, but we didn’t feel sweeps were on with the guys they were bowling and the way the wicket didn’t really bounce at that time. We’re thankful that we just hung in and trusted in our experience. Even really quiet overs, shocking really, but we had nowhere to go, literally nothing to do, and it was better than just slogging it up in the air.”
With Sri Lanka’s two spinners, Maheesh Theekshana and especially Wanindu Hasaranga outstanding, and their seamers providing disciplined support – at least until they lost their length in the latter stages of England’s innings – Buttler’s first 50 was his slowest in international Twenty20 cricket. He may have ended the innings with a 67-ball century but it took until his 46th delivery – the ball before Morgan finally scored his first boundary – to reach halfway.
“Even Jos, who’s in unbelievable form, really did find it tough. When I got to the wicket he talked about just getting something going, and even he struggled to rotate the strike,” Morgan said. “You take in all that information and realise how tough it is, and believe it will get better or you will get a bad ball, and even if you don’t you’re still doing the right thing and trusting the process.”
There are several possible criticisms of England’s innings: when Hasaranga dismissed Jonny Bairstow in the sixth over they might have promoted Moeen Ali, who is in excellent form and has a good record against spin, rather than send in their captain; once batting Morgan might have shown intent more quickly given the batting talent to follow, most of which ended up unused; and any strategy that results in a score of 47 for three at halfway and is entirely reliant on Buttler compiling the greatest innings of his career – Morgan admitted that “without that absolutely unbelievable knock we’d have been nowhere” – is not a very good one.
But the 35-year-old insisted that he and Buttler were always playing to a plan. Asked to recall his first boundary, a sweep for four off Hasaranga, he said: “I took a gamble, it worked, it came off, it’s what happens. You have to take risks at different stages. I didn’t take one before then because we didn’t think it was really necessary.”
This is a really telling statement. Before scoring 40 against Sri Lanka Morgan had managed only 46 runs in his 10 previous Twenty20 innings for club and country, a sequence that in many might provoke significant soul-searching. He then came in, scored only eight runs off his first 19 balls on a difficult surface, watched his team’s tally creep to 61 for three after 12 overs, knew that with dew already settling his opponents were going to face far friendlier conditions, and still thought his partnership with Buttler would end up being so fruitful risks were not really necessary. It is a level of confidence in yourself and in your teammates that is simply awe-inspiring in scale. “You sort of always have to believe,” Morgan said of his own form, “because if you don’t believe nobody else will.”
This is why Buttler enthused after the game that, even if it was much less comfortable than their wins over West Indies, Bangladesh and Australia, “what this will do for us as a side is fantastic”. It was a night when nearly everything went wrong, and still enough went right.
Apart from one dropped catch England’s fielding was outstanding and, despite the dew and the heat – on a steamy night in Sharjah Chris Jordan sweated so profusely a coach had to be positioned just across the rope with a bespoke Jordan-mopping beach towel – every bowler impressed except Tymal Mills. He limped off with a quad injury after nine balls which went for 19 runs – and England’s medical team are awaiting results of a scan with crossed fingers, as Mark Wood is not yet pain-free after his ankle injury. But the greatest impact of the victory will be on England’s mindset: it might have taken a miracle innings to save them from defeat, but now they believe in miracles.